Thursday, December 8, 2011

New Year's Resolutions? Try something different this year!

New Year's resolutions? I don't do them. Never have. They just don't resonate with me. But there is something I've done for years, something a little different, and I'd like to share it with you. If you like, you could give it a try.

One holiday season, back in the Stone Age (all right, it was really about 20 years ago) I came across a short saying that just stuck in my head. The words: All life is one life. The result: I spent the whole next year contemplating it, keeping it in the back of my mind all the time, mainly because I just couldn't get rid of it. I guess you could call it a long-term meditation, though not exactly a voluntary one.

The results were profound. It really did change my life.

So I decided to do it again, only by choice this time.

Throughout the holiday season, I remained alert for another phrase or saying to appear and nudge me in the ribs. And one did. So I repeated the process, with equally amazing results. I've been doing it ever since.

Some years, as January rolled around, I worried that my Saying of the Year wouldn't show up. It always did, though I found I couldn't rush it. I also found I couldn't just pick a saying that I heard or read somewhere. It had to come to me, not the other way round.

This year it showed up a little early, about a week ago. It's like a snippet of catchy song lyrics, stuck in my head and refusing to budge, so it must be The Saying of the Year.

It's an Eckhart Tolle quote: You do not live life; life lives you. Life is the dancer. You are the dance.

This should be an interesting year.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Gotta Love Those Pigeonholes

We sure love pigeonholes, don’t we? I mean, as a species. We like to generate tidy labels and categories for everything from amoebas to divine beings and then force whatever we’re thinking about into those categories. We’re so great, we’ve figured all this stuff out and can demonstrate our control by labeling it all.

I’m pretty sure life isn’t really that simple.

I can see where it comes from, though. On a basic level, being able to tell self from other, one-of-us from not-one-of-us is helpful and might even be life saving. I’ve read some anthropology journal articles that address this issue in pre-modern human societies. It’s an uncomfortable subject, but the fact is, most (possibly all) groups of humans at one time or another in the past were cannibals. Here’s the thing, though - they didn’t prey on members of their own group.  Only people outside the family, tribe or clan were fair game.

I’ve noticed that many cultural groups have names for themselves that mean, simply, The People. In other words, “We’re people and all those other folks aren’t.” If they’re not people, then they’re fair game. Us Versus Them on a very pragmatic level, with each group’s survival depending on it.

But our survival no longer hinges on dividing the world into our own group (predators) and prey. Life is far more nuanced than that, but I’m not sure our brains - or our cultures - are keeping up with those nuances well enough. And it’s not just Us Versus Them.

Back to those pigeonholes. They have served us well in the realm of the sciences. We now have vast organized collections of nomenclature for living things - Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus Species. We label and categorize chemical elements, atomic particles, stars, planets.

We use those labels to feel comfortable with the information, to separate out small bits that we can get a handle on. That primitive part of the human brain still tells us, “Label everything so you don’t get eaten.”

But what about the things that don’t fit so well into the pigeonholes? As hard as we try to force them into tidy categories, spiritual beliefs don’t really fit that well under discrete labels. Political ideologies don’t sift out that well, either. And human sexuality - I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my friends say there isn’t a label that fits them exactly. I’ve talked with a few scientists whose experience tells them the distinct groupings we sort bits of the world into aren’t as clear-cut as we’d like to think. And it’s pretty obvious by now that Us Versus Them doesn’t serve anyone any more.

Maybe it’s time to move on from the pigeonholes. Sure, you put your sweater and your lunchbox in a cubbyhole when you were in kindergarten, but you’re not in kindergarten any more. So what to use instead, to get a handle on the world?

How about a rainbow?

No, I’m not about to go all goodness-and-light on you. I think the rainbow is an effective symbol for the nuanced, one-thing-merging-into-another property that real life demonstrates. Bear with me here.

You might have memorized the colors of the rainbow as a child - ROYGBIV - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. I’ll bet you drew rainbows with your crayons, each color a tidy, distinct stripe, separate from the next.

But those colors aren’t tidy and distinct; it’s only our labels that make them seem so. Look closely at a rainbow and you’ll see each color merging into the next with no specific demarcation where one ends and the next begins. That’s the way the spectrum of visible light is. Sure, we can generate fancy scientific labels that say one color stops and another starts at a particular frequency, but the fact is, it’s a continuum.

If you look carefully, you’ll see that most of life is a continuum in one way or another. The lines on the map exist only on the map, not in the big world. Ask an astronaut.

Continuums are scary. It’s hard to tell where one thing ends and the next one begins. It’s hard to tell who you’re supposed to like or dislike, how you’re supposed to think, what you’re supposed to do. How on earth can you get a handle on a continuum?

But that’s what happens when you graduate from kindergarten - you have to deal with the world without those cubbyholes. Maybe it’s time for the human race to move on to first grade.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Who deserves it?

For some time now I’ve been trying to figure out the phenomenon that makes some people go absolutely ballistic at the thought of government programs that help the poor. This includes not only the traditional welfare, food stamps and disability payments but also universal health care. I’ve read dozens of blogs and hundreds of news articles; I’ve had countless conversations with people, in person and online, about it. Yesterday I finally had an epiphany.

The first thing I realized is that the emotion driving these reactions is fear. When the terms welfare state and socialism float around in a conversation, people begin to shriek in terror. It’s a primal emotion, easy to identify. So what are they afraid of?

I started looking for details in blogs, articles and conversations - tiny clues that might help me figure out where that fear is coming from and what the heck it has to do with these political issues. First I realized that the issue of government-vs.-privatism is not really the problem. The same people who scream in terror at the thought of food stamps and nationalized healthcare don’t mind having their taxes support the interstate highway system or the military, or local schools and public works.

Likewise, the issue of church-and-state is a smoke screen. Some people insist that it’s the church’s responsibility to take care of the poor but they have no problem with non-religious charities doing so as well, and may give their money to them as well. So it’s not about actually giving away the money, either. Then what is it about?

What is at issue here is control. If support for the poor and needy is in the hands of private institutions, they get to pick and choose who gets that support and they get to put conditions on it. If that support is in the hands of the government, the only requirements will be ink-and-paper financial statements. So what does that mean? What are people really scared of? They’re afraid this will happen:

Someone who doesn’t deserve it will get something that was paid for with my money.

That’s it, in a nutshell.

When that realization hit me, I was immediately transported back to Mrs. Weber’s 10th grade English class and a discussion of George Bernard Shaw’s work. Mrs. Weber introduced me to the concepts of the Deserving Poor and the Undeserving Poor, first enshrined in Queen Elizabeth I’s Poor Law of 1563. I still recall the lurching feeling in my stomach as my innocence crumbled away. I was crushed by the sudden awareness that many people used to believe, and many still do believe, that some of their fellow human beings don’t deserve to be helped.

I didn’t have to read between the lines in My Fair Lady to figure out who the Deserving and Undeserving Poor were in Victorian England. And I don’t have to read between the lines today to make that distinction, either. Of course, it varies from group to group and person to person, but from the comments I’ve seen in articles and blog posts, the greatest fear is that the following groups will receive government money: urban African-American and Latino people; immigrants, both legal and illegal, but especially Latinos; alcoholics and drug addicts; and Muslims. There is also a fear of supporting unwed mothers, particularly non-white ones. I’m sure there are other groups, as well, that some people don’t want their money going to.

Bear in mind, I’m no Mother Theresa. I have my own biases and prejudices. But I try to be conscious of my tendency to prejudge others who are different from me and not let that emotional response enter into my decision-making process. I don’t recall any of the great spiritual leaders saying you should ask for certain credentials before helping people.

I suspect that many of the people who are against these government aid programs can’t even admit to themselves why the idea frightens them so much. It’s hard to face our own prejudices, especially if we have strong spiritual or ethical standards which we publicly follow. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll look into that darkness and shine a light that dispels the shadows of bias and fear.

So where does this excursion into the unpleasant depths of the human psyche leave me? I’m not sure. It took enormous societal changes for some people to allow their tax money to pay for poor African-Americans to attend decent public schools (and many of them still don’t like it). I suspect it will take similarly profound changes before people are willing to consider certain ethnic and social groups worthy of aid and support.

But I have hope. That voice that said, “Love your neighbor” also whispers: “They are all your neighbors.”

Friday, August 26, 2011

Editing Ourselves

I’m an editor. Sure, I have hopes of being a novelist one day, but while I wait for that magical phone call from my literary agent I spend a lot of my time fine-tooth-combing other people’s writing. And my mind plays its chronic free-association game in the background as I work my way through all those words.

One thing I’ve discovered over the years is that you can tell a lot about a person by what they include and what they leave out in their writing, how they word things and which images they choose. We all have unwritten rules that we live by and they do a little editing for us unconsciously before our words ever hit the paper.

These same ‘internal editors’ also affect our interactions with other people, our conversations and relationships and careers. The main problem with these internal editors is that we don’t realize when they’re at work. And most of the time we don’t want to, because looking at them is uncomfortable. We all want to think we’re unbiased, don’t we?

Just as I sit at my desk and go over someone’s writing, correcting or deleting the bad parts and saving the good, our internal editors tell us what to esteem and what to ignore or scorn. Some of these values come from our culture and some come from personal experience.

I grew up with a particular set of unspoken biases, instilled in me by my parents and teachers. I always took it for granted that I would go to college and get not only a four-year degree but probably something advanced as well. I never questioned this assumption. What’s more, I never looked at the set of other beliefs that were attached to it, hovering there in my subconscious, flavoring every decision I made in life. In fact, I didn’t face what my internal editor was doing to my life until I had a B.A. in Russian and was halfway to a doctorate in linguistics.

When I finally confronted what was really going on in the back of my mind, I was shocked. Behind the idea that of course I would earn a college degree, my internal editor was telling me other things that weren’t so savory: I don’t have any value to society without a degree. I can’t get a good job without a degree. Not earning a degree would make me an embarrassment to my family. Of course, my internal editor also told me that these values apply to everyone, not just me.

Boy, that’s a load of classist crap, isn’t it? But I was nearly 30 before I realized I had built my worldview on exactly those elitist grounds. It took a lot of uncomfortable soul-searching to even face what was going on in the deep dark recesses of my psyche. And what did I do after all that soul-searching, when I realized I needed to take my life in a new direction? I went after another degree! Granted, the N.D. wasn’t at all mainstream and was something of an embarrassment to my family, but still, it was a degree. Nothing like rebelling while staying in the box. Thankfully, I've gotten a clue since then.

This just goes to show how hard it is to escape from our internal editors. To a great extent they really do run our lives, whether we like it or not. I still find myself expecting certain sets of behaviors from people based on my first impressions of their dress, demeanor and accent. At least I usually catch myself doing it and don’t let it slide too far into the background, but it’s still there.

I’m afraid I don’t have any glib advice to give you about that pesky internal editor; I still struggle with it myself. The old cliché of first admitting the problem applies here, I think. We’ve all got some sort of programming running in the backs of our minds. Knowing it’s there is a good start toward becoming aware of the ways it biases our thoughts and attitudes. The more conscious we make each of these assumptions, the more power we have to choose whether or not to allow them to edit our lives.

Editing on purpose is a good thing; it improves writing and generates a more valuable finished product. The unconscious editing from our hidden assumptions, however, is valuable only when we bring it into the daylight and discover the ways in which it influences (or railroads) our lives.

I was delighted to discover recently that I’m not the only person battling against that infernal internal editor. For an interesting discussion of what kind of biases and hidden assumptions we all carry and how we can work to get around them, have a look at Ramit Sethi's blog. It's a good thing the human psyche is so fascinating, or we'd all go crazy!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why Be Normal?

Normal: It’s such a highly-charged word these days, what with everyone trying to come up with politically correct or (we hope) compassionate terms for people who aren’t…you know. My first child was born with severe orthopedic problems and I struggled to find ways of talking about her that were compassionate but still accurate. The truth is, she wasn’t normal. That’s a hard thing to face, especially with that word.

Then a couple years ago I did some work for my father-in-law that transformed my understanding of the term. He was compiling the history of a school in Wilmington, North Carolina in order to publish a book about it. He called it the Tileston School, as did most folks in Wilmington in recent times. But as I went through the old newspaper clippings about the school, I discovered its original name: Tileston Normal School. My first silly thought was, “Did Wilmington have an abnormal school as well?”

My ensuing research into schools in 19th-century America led me to an interesting discovery about the word normal. We’re all familiar with the image of the one-room schoolhouse in which a dedicated school-mistress instructs a collection of students ranging in age from 6 to 18. This was the standard in many parts of the U.S. until the early 20th century. And it is this multi-age schoolhouse with which the normal school contrasts.

The word normal simply means conforming to norms. In the case of schools, the norms are ages; a normal school separates the students into classes based on age rather than putting them all together in one big group. That was a smack-myself-in-the-forehead moment. I got out the dictionary and looked up the word, just to be sure I was getting it right. Besides the specialist meanings in mathematics and engineering, the word normal means “according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule or principle.” And of course, those norms, rules and principles are made up by people.

My philosopher-daughter caught me with my nose in the dictionary and asked what I was so interested in. She pointed out to me that what’s normal has changed over time, and is even different from culture to culture around the world today. Of course. We aren’t head hunters like our Celtic ancestors were and we don’t drive on the left side of the road like the Brits do. Each society has its own set of norms. If you don’t conform to your society’s norms, you’re not normal. It’s as simple as that.

Change occurs in a society when a portion of the population decides that the norms are wrong. The suffragettes weren’t normal. Neither were the supporters of the labor movement in the 1920s and 1930s. But now, women who vote and workers who have rights in the workplace are the norm in the U.S. Journeying to the stars to heal fellow tribe members was completely normal for the ancient Siberian shaman; seeing visions of the divine was normal for medieval Christian mystics. Neither of these activities is normal in western society today, unfortunately.

Some people choose to violate the norms of society on purpose; artistic bohemian types have long done so, as have independent folks who don’t want to be constrained by someone else’s rules. And that’s all norms are - an agreed-upon set of rules (agreed upon by most of us, anyway).

So now, when I hear someone labeled not normal my immediate thought is, "Did they choose to step outside the lines?" Obviously my daughter didn’t choose to be born abnormal, and people with mental illnesses and severe injuries don’t choose that either. But many of us decide that we don’t like where society’s lines are drawn. We don’t agree with the norms. The fact that many people disagreed with those norms created the changes that allowed me to take my wheelchair-bound daughter out in public without shame and without having to confront physical barriers in buildings and public places.

Maybe the most important thing about normal is that we all have to agree on it. And when enough people disagree, we have no choice but to redraw the lines.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Define Yourself

Recently I’ve been a spectator at a number of online arguments, watching people ‘virtually’ yell at each other, each insisting the other is wrong. I do get tired of it. And guess what? They’re all wrong.

Years and years ago, I took training as a mediator in order to help fellow parents of disabled children work out their differences with schools, medical personnel and bureaucrats. Parent to Parent of Georgia and Parents Helping Parents of Tennessee (no longer in existence) were my saving grace during that time, providing me with support and pointing me toward the mediation training as well as training as a grief counselor. I proudly used those skills on a volunteer basis for families who needed it. After my daughter died, I turned down an offer from her school system to act as a mediator on behalf of other parents of special needs kids - I needed to make a change, shift my life around a bit. But those mediation skills hung on and have turned out to be very helpful over the years.

One thing that struck me about how mediation should work is that a good mediator requires the participants to define their terms. I continue to be amazed at how many arguments go on and on because the people involved have either failed to define their terms with each other or failed to agree on a common definition.

One lengthy disagreement I’ve been watching online involves religion. The thing is, the two main participants in the argument have very different definitions of the word ‘religion.’ One insists religion involves any sort of spiritual belief a person has, regardless of whether it fits in with any named tradition. The other person holds that religion must necessarily mean institutions and formal traditions, and that anything else is faith, belief or spirituality but not religion. The point is not which of them is right or wrong. If they were to define their terms and agree to discuss the same thing, regardless of what they call it, the argument would end. In many cases it really is that simple.

A number of years ago, two friends (a married couple) were having some problems in their relationship. They knew I had mediation training and asked me to sit down with them one evening and help them work things out. I was hesitant to do so; the instructor in my mediation course emphasized the fact that a good mediator tends to make all parties equally angry at her. But my friends were desperate so I agreed.

Their disagreement was simple on the surface: She said he didn’t respect her, and he insisted that he did. After a great deal of discussion, we discovered that they had two very different definitions of respect. I tried to get them to narrow the discussion to the same actual topic, regardless of terms, but each one stuck by their original definition so the argument couldn’t be resolved. And yes, they were both equally angry with me.

Our session ended with them deciding to go to a professional counselor because I obviously didn’t know what I was doing. When they came back from their counseling appointment a few days later, they acted uncomfortable and didn’t want to make eye contact with me. Finally they admitted that the counselor had said the same things to them that I did. They were maintaining the argument by refusing to agree on terms and definitions.

I don’t know why we cling so tightly to our personal definitions of certain words. Of course, everyone has different life experience and so will have individual nuances to standard definitions. But when it comes time to discuss meaningful matters with other people, it stands to reason that we should make sure we’re actually talking about the same thing.

For heaven’s sake, if you can’t agree on the definition of a particular word, scrap and it use some other term. Make up a word if you have to. But having an argument in which one person is talking about one thing and the other person is talking about something else is just plain stupid. If it’s power struggle you’re after, you’ll get it if you refuse to agree on definitions. But what a waste of time. Life is far more valuable than that, if you ask me.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Following Your Bliss

Joseph Campbell’s famous advice rings true: Follow your bliss. Sounds great. The only problem is, how do you figure out what your bliss is? Then how do you deal with all those people who freak out when you finally head down that path?

Like many people (women especially) I spent all my childhood and most of my young adulthood listening carefully to other people’s ideas about what I should do with my life. These were authority figures - relatives, teachers, clergy - people with more worldly experience than I had, people who told me they knew what I should do. I was a good girl. I did what they told me to. It wasn’t my bliss.

It took me nearly thirty years to develop enough guts to tell all those people that I didn’t want to follow their advice any more. It still amazes me how difficult that first step was. We’re so strongly conditioned, from childhood onward, to listen to good advice from respected elders and then do what they say. Most of them mean well, but they’re not inside our heads and hearts. They don’t see the world through our eyes. They can’t.

My eleven-year-old daughter recently figured out that everyone experiences the world differently. It took me years to understand what that really means. The ultimate result: It means you’re going to make people angry.

It took me thirty years to figure out that all the stuff other people told me to do wasn’t my bliss. Then it took me almost another decade to determine what my bliss really is. Beware: The fact that you’re good at something doesn’t mean it will make your soul sigh and your heart sing. If you’re good at more than one thing, prepare to experience repeated disappointment until you figure out what you really need to do with your life. Just don’t give up, that’s all. You’ll find it.

The funny thing is, once you figure it out and head down that blissful path, people will get mad at you. They’ll say you’re not doing the right thing. They’ll assure you that you’re misguided and aren’t really following your bliss. It’s funny for this reason: They’re sure your bliss is the thing THEY told you to do.

The French teacher who wanted you to be an interpreter. The great-uncle who wanted you to be a professor. The minister who wanted you to be a counselor.

Some of them will be diplomatic and polite about it, but the fact is, you’ve wrecked their version of the universe. You’ve chosen to follow your rules, not theirs.

That’s the bit that Joseph Campbell never talked about. I wonder who cursed under their breath when he decided to spend his life teaching mythology at a women’s college. Whoever they were, I’m glad he ignored them.

Monday, May 9, 2011

To Monarch or Not To Monarch

That is the question that has spurred a great deal of conversation, debate and argument (polite and otherwise) for the past several months. The inspiration for the subject, of course, was the much-publicized wedding of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton, now HRH Princess Catherine. I have read a lot of opinions, participated in a lot of discussions and done a lot of thinking about this subject in the past few weeks. Now that the furor has died down a bit, I can step back and reflect on what I’ve learned.

First of all, I’m American so from my earliest school days I was taught that monarchy is a backward thing, a type of government that the world has evolved beyond. In other words, we’re grown-ups now and don’t need a king to tell us what to do. Why is it, then, that so many Americans were glued to their TVs for the royal wedding? In fact, a number of reports suggested that there was more interest in the event in the U.S. than in the U.K. What on earth is going on here?

Of course, there’s the romance-and-fairy-tale factor. What little girl didn’t dream at one time or another of growing up to marry a handsome prince? Let’s not get into the feminist angles of this bit right now, just admit that it’s there. But dreaming-of-princess-ness alone isn’t enough to account for the fervor, and fervor it was.

An article in the U.K’s  The Guardian about this very subject noted that for more than a thousand years Britain has been ruled by monarchs, so it’s a long-standing tradition without which the country just wouldn’t seem itself, or so the writer insisted. I think, however, there’s more to it than that.

When someone mentions Britain what images come to mind? The Queen; Buckingham Palace; those guards in the black-and-red uniforms and ridiculous bearskin hats. The monarchy and all its trappings are living symbols of the nation itself, its identity, symbols of the national soul, if you will. That same Guardian article suggested that if Britain got rid of its monarchy, the symbolism would then rest on the nation’s elected leader (the article offered a horrified vision of the Brits bowing down to ‘President Blair’). But I’m not sure that would be the case.

You see, in the U.S. we don’t have a monarchy, so we don’t have that particular symbol to encapsulate the concept of our nation. But President Whoever-it-is-this-year doesn’t fulfill that function, either. Sure, the presidency (the institution, not the particular person who holds the job this term) is something of a symbol, but it’s not the whole thing. In fact, I’d say we don’t really have a coherent soul-symbol for America. Because of that lack, we end up practically worshipping movie stars and professional athletes as if they were royalty. And watching endless hours of TV coverage of the real thing. Obviously, there’s an unfulfilled need here.

So I got to thinking about what might symbolize my country, or any country, for that matter. Indigenous populations and their cultures might be a good choice if they hadn’t been marginalized and/or exterminated around the globe. And I can’t honestly expect Joe Blow, the very modern descendant of European immigrants to New York City, to identify with those native populations or their ways.

In fact, I’m thinking that people, or even institutions filled by people, ought not to be used to symbolize nations. People are, well, human. Not always as brave, kind, honest and so on as we might like them to be. And undeniably mortal.

Where does that leave us? Where could we possibly find an enduring image, something powerful that symbolizes a nation effectively for all the people of that nation, from new immigrants to generations-long natives?

How about the land itself?

I am continually amazed at how great an impact place has on people and to how great an extent they don’t consciously realize this impact. Think about it. How attached are you to the area you grew up in or the area you now live in? How strong an image do you carry in your mind and heart, of your favorite places in your country? Are you a Southerner? Northerner? I bet you’re proud of it.

Every nation is rooted in the land beneath its people’s feet. That land molds the society, the way of life, the traditions that become secondary symbols for the nation. But the land is really the primary symbol, underneath it all. If you’re American, recall for a moment the song America the Beautiful: ‘O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain’s majesty above the fruited plain.’ If you’re British, how about Shakespeare’s famous speech about ‘this sceptr’d isle’? I’ll wager those images have a more powerful, gut-level impact for you than any human institution, elected or monarchical.

Consider also that there might be a few positive side effects to focusing on the land itself as a nation’s primary symbol. If the land IS the nation, might we not tend to treat it better, with more reverence and care, rather than as an expendable commodity? I can hope.

So there’s my answer to The Monarchy Debate. Let us return to the true, underlying, primary symbol of every nation: The land beneath its people’s feet. Then it doesn’t really matter whether you have a monarchy or presidency or Grand High Poobah. The government can shift and change as it needs to without endangering the nation’s identity. Because every time you take a step, you connect with your country.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Us versus Them

One of my cats brought a sparrow in this morning, still alive, and proceeded to play with it for a few minutes before eating it. Yeah, I know, not the way I wanted to start the day. But it got me thinking. This same cat acts terribly distressed if either of the other two cats in our household is sick or injured, but he didn’t care a whit about the bird as he tormented it and then bit its head off.

Numerous studies have shown that animals feel empathy for members of their ‘families’ - parents, offspring, members of the same pack or pride. If one of those ‘family members’ is sick or injured they are distressed. If one of them dies, they grieve. They’re just like us. Or perhaps, we’re just like them.

The thing is, though, animals apparently feel no empathy whatsoever for their prey. They not only kill and eat with impunity, but many animals, from big cats to orcas, have been seen to play with their prey, often cruelly, before finally dispatching it. For these animals, family is family and prey is prey, and never the twain shall meet.

And I began to wonder if this isn’t something we do, as well, though we’re loathe to admit it. Around the world, most groups of people have names for themselves which mean, essentially, ‘people.’ In other words, we’re people and everyone else is not. They’re enemy. Or prey.

There is a great deal of evidence showing that human societies were cannibalistic, at least occasionally, for much of prehistory and occasionally into historical times. I suspect that cannibalism was a hedge against hunger in times of drought, animal population crash, natural disaster and so on. But we’ve moved on past that stage in our grisly history. Or have we?

We still have Us versus Them. The military teaches its soldiers that the enemy is just ‘an animal walking upright on two legs.’ Not human. Not people. Prey.

We create divisions among ourselves all the time based on beliefs, nationality, physical characteristics, ethnic origins, lifestyle choices. There are people like us, and then there are the Others. They’re different. Not us. Somehow inferior.

Sure, we’re more socially evolved now so we don’t call them subhuman the way the slave owners talked about the slaves, but the underlying current is still there. And what does this division do? It allows us to feel less empathy toward those who are different. It’s the same as classifying the world into Us and Prey. We care about our own. We feel nothing toward prey.

I’ve been conducting a little experiment lately. Having grown up in this divisive society, I’m as guilty as the next person of mentally dividing the world into People Like Me and Others. But I’m doing my best to deprogram that divisive, destructive mentality. When I catch myself thinking about ways in which someone is different from me, I remind myself that we’re both human beings. My fellow humans are all around me. My family.

Every single person on this planet is different. If I wanted to, I could keep dividing it down until Us versus Them became Me versus Everyone Else. I’ve seen some people do that. It’s sad and scary.

I enjoy all the differences. They make life interesting. But I refuse to let them divide me from the rest of humanity. The interesting thing is, once I started doing that with people, I found myself doing it with other living things as well - animals, trees - and even things that modern science doesn’t consider to be alive - stones, bodies of water. Once you start making connections, it’s hard to stop.

To all my relations, I greet you.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Gadgetry to the Rescue!

Over the past couple years I’ve read the news reports and listened to the commentary about the airport security systems in the U.S., how they invade everyone’s privacy and work on the assumption that technology will do a better job than the human eye and experience at picking out potential terrorists. It occurred to me that the TSA isn’t alone in this attitude. In fact, it pervades our society. I’m still trying to decide whether we’re better or worse off for it.

I saw it in medicine years ago, when I was studying to be a naturopath. I learned how to look at a person, watch their body and their movements and their speech, as well as study their detailed medical history, to find the source of their health issues. I had a friend in med school at the time. He complained of having to memorize all the ‘normal’ numbers for a scad of blood tests, so he could look at a printed paper from a laboratory and tell what was wrong with his patients before he ever met them. He also took a class in which he learned how to stack as many patients as possible into an hour of appointment time so as to maximize profits. I’m not kidding. Mind you, he’s a good doctor, one who actually wants to help people, but still…

I keep seeing ads for cars that will keep you from swerving into another lane or hitting the car in front of you, in case you’re too tired to pay proper attention to your driving. I’m glad to know that we have the capability of making people safer in an automobile, but concerned that some folks will take the new technology as an opportunity to drive when they’re fatigued far beyond the limits of safety. Last I heard, most highway accidents were caused by lack of sleep. We’re past the days when the horse knew the way home even if you nodded off in the wagon.

We love our technology, our gadgets, and I include myself in the ‘we’ of this sentence. Computers have made my life as a writer and editor much less difficult (I wish I could say effortless). They make it quick and easy to diagnose what’s wrong with my car. Technology made my gallbladder surgery almost a minor occurrence, in comparison to that of a friend who had the same surgery fifteen years before I did and spent a week in the hospital, recovering from being slit from stem to stern. Technology has saved lives around the world through weather forecasting, medical advances,  transportation safety. So I’m not knocking it. But I do wonder if we put a little more faith in technology than we should.

Ah, there it is. Faith. That’s the kernel I’ve been looking for. We’re looking for something, or someone, to save us. God. Goddess. An authoritarian figure in a white lab coat. A computer that knows everything, including the questions we need to ask. Like little children, we want a power outside ourselves to take care of everything. If that power isn’t forthcoming on its own, we’ll invent it and then give ourselves over to it.

We even put it in so many words. In the Middle Ages God was going to save the world , or at least particular parts of it who behaved according to a specific set of rules. Then much later, antibiotics and vaccines were going to save the world. So was the atom bomb. (Irony, yes, but they did actually say it.) Then computers. Have you noticed, though, that the world hasn’t changed much in its essentials in spite of all this? Perhaps that’s because we’re looking in the wrong place.

Technology is only a tool. How we approach various technologies and how we use them makes all the difference in the world. No computer, no matter how powerful, is going to step up and save us from ourselves. It’s a nice fantasy but it simply isn’t going to happen.

Instead of putting our faith in technology, how about we put that faith in ourselves? Yes, bad people do nasty things; they always have. But there are plenty of good people in the world as well. Instead of hoping and praying that some fantastic invention will magically solve all our problems, how about we take what we’ve already got and figure out how to use it for good? There are already folks out there doing just that, but they don’t often make the headlines the way the gadgets do. Maybe it’s time to do something with those gadgets that will make headlines, the good kind.

As my grandmother used to say, it ain’t what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Oh no! Who am I? Help!!!

I can't help but laugh at all the hubbub going on right now about the 'surprise' discovery that traditional astrology charts are wrong. Bear in mind, I first started casting charts by hand, on paper, with a calculator, in the late 1970s, so I have a clue. Since that time I've watched people perform all sorts of mental acrobatics regarding astrology. We do take ourselves terribly seriously, don't we? Maybe the whole human race should just take a deep breath.

The big flap is all because someone realized that tropical astrology (the kind most people are familiar with) doesn't place the constellations in the sky where they actually are these days. That's due to a phenomenon called Precession of the Equinoxes. I hate to break it to you, but this is old news. It's not some conspiracy in which occult information has been held, hidden, for centuries by some secret organization in order to mislead the people. It's simply due to the fact that tropical astrology is based on the sky as charted in Babylonian astrology from about 2000 years ago, give or take, and sidereal astrology isn't.

Now, we could spend all day debating which one is better, more accurate, more in keeping with what the ancient astrologers meant when they set up the system. But to me, that's beside the point. What really bothers me is the extent to which people have wrapped up their egos and identities in these bits of celestial information. This goes way beyond the cheesy pick-up line, "What's your sign?"

I can't tell you how many people I know have decided who they are and how their psyches work based on astrology. Many of them don't even bother with a full chart; they live for those little horoscope tidbits in the newspaper, which often turn out to be self-fulfilling prophecies, like the med school students who come down with the symptoms of every new disease they study.

Maybe it's a comfort to have someone else tell you who you are, so you don't have to do any self-reflection. It's certainly easier to say, "I'm not capable of [action] because I'm a [zodiac sign]." Or, "You'll just have to put up with [annoying trait] because my [planet] is in [constellation] and I can't change that."

I once had to fire a woman who refused to do anything that could be construed as 'starting a new project' when the moon was void of course. The moon is void of course about every third day. Guess how helpful she was, as an employee? But she was dead sure that any new project started during such times would be a dismal failure, so she wouldn't even try and I had to fire her. Perhaps she started the job when the moon was void of course, and that explains her lack of success at it? Yes, that's sarcasm.

People also seem to forget that astrology was invented for the purpose of helping the kings of Babylonia make governing decisions. The old-time astrologers figured the stars were only interested in the bigwigs, not the ordinary people. Kind of like how Egyptians, in the early days, believed that only the king got to hang out in the afterlife. Sure, later on these beliefs trickled down, first to the aristocracy and eventually to the common people (that's you and me, by the way). But that's not how it started.

So take a deep breath. The universe didn't suddenly tilt sideways without warning. We're still the same people we were day before yesterday, and no amount of calculation or re-calculation will change that. What can change, however, is that we can try paying more attention to our inner selves, to identifying who we are and what our life purpose really is, without relying on any external system of any sort.

If what you seek you find not within you, you will never find it without you. So it is and so we let it be.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Brave New Year

I was recently asked to come up with a short list of adjectives to describe myself, and to my surprise one of the words that popped into my mind was ‘courageous.’ That’s not how I usually see myself, and I wondered how that particular term managed to weasel its way to the top of my thoughts. I began by attempting to define the word.

First of all, courage isn’t the absence of fear. As the old saying goes, only a fool is never afraid. Courage is simply this: The ability to do whatever needs to be done, regardless of fear. Just do it, as the commercial says, no matter how many knots your gut is tied in, no matter how shrill the voice of terror that shrieks in your head, no matter how hard you shake.

Well, I certainly experience my share of fear, all the usual mother/wife/businessperson/member-of-the-modern-world type stuff. So I’ve got that part sewn up. But what about the other bit, the doing-it-anyway part?

When I was a child and someone asked me to define bravery, I would describe a firefighter or police officer doing their job, facing daily peril, knowing this call could very well be their last. That’s courage embodied, no doubt about it. But what about us ordinary folk, the ones whose daily lives don’t involve the risk of grievous bodily harm or imminent death?

I thought back to the first award my daughter ever earned in Girl Scouts, when she was a Daisy: the Courage petal. She earned it the same way the other timid, fidgety 5-year-olds in her troop did: by reciting, by heart, the Girl Scout Law, in front of a room full of adults. Courage indeed. Just do it.

I suspect we’re all a good bit braver than we give ourselves credit for. Just thinking back through my own life, I can count off many instances of courage: Telling my first husband I wanted a divorce. Fighting for the medical care my disabled daughter needed. Running my first big natural health workshop. Sending my manuscripts off to publishers and agents, again and again, in spite of a pile of rejection notices. And of course, the big one: Admitting I’m wrong.

So yeah, maybe I am courageous. Maybe you are, too. How many times have you gritted your teeth and done whatever needed to be done, regardless of the butterflies in your stomach? How many times have you faced a person or situation that scared you, right to your bones? A lot, I’ll bet. More than you think.

In the end, I added the word ‘courageous’ to the list of adjectives I used to describe myself. I hope you’ll do the same. Sometimes, just facing life every morning is an act of courage. Give yourself credit for it, and have a brave new year.